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11 September, 2012

Perpetuation of inequality

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

An attempt to amend the Constitution to ensure fair representation for Dalits and Adivasis in the higher echelons of government service failed last week, revealing once again the hurdles in the path towards an equitable society.

The United Progressive Alliance government, which does not command the two-thirds majority needed for passage of a constitutional amendment, introduced the bill in the Rajya Sabha without mobilising the requisite support. The opposition National Democratic Alliance, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, took no firm stand on the measure, confident that the government cannot go forward in the absence of a consensus.

A confrontation on the floor of the house between members of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, both of whom support the UPA from outside, prevented discussion and adoption of the measure. Ironically, both the parties are champions of socially disadvantaged sections. The BSP, a Dalit party, wanted the bill to be passed but the SP, which draws support mainly from the other backward classes (OBCs) and Muslims, blocked it as these sections have been kept out of its purview.

Dalits and Adivasis, officially classified as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes respectively, comprise communities which were victims of the inhuman practice of “untouchability” for centuries. They have had the benefit of reservation in government service from 1950 when the Constitution came into force. The OBCs, too, have reservation but that came about under different circumstances and the system operates differently in their case.

To begin with, SC and ST reservation was limited to the entry stage. In 1955, the government provided for reservation in promotions, too, realising that these communities are not getting adequate representation at higher levels in the service. Thirty-seven years later, the Supreme Court ruled that reservation cannot be extended to cover promotions.

The government nullified the judgement through a constitutional amendment. After a couple of skirmishes over the provision, last April the Supreme Court struck it down saying the government must first demonstrate that the groups concerned remain backward and do not have adequate representation in the service and that provision of reservation will not result in loss of efficiency.

Reservation for members of the backward sections in government service and in school and college admissions was in force in some princely states like Kolhapur, Mysore and Travancore and the British-ruled Madras province before Independence. When the Constitution came into force, the judiciary held that such reservation offended its equality provisions. At the government’s instance parliament amended the Constitution to assert the state’s power to make special provisions for the socially and educationally backward sections.

For years this provision was used only for the limited purpose of protecting pre-Independence reservations. In 1989, VP Singh’s government, invoking it, extended reservation in government service to OBCs all over the country. While upholding the provision, the judiciary has circumscribed its application by ruling that the “creamy layer” of these communities is not eligible for reservation.

The central government has identified some sections of Muslims as backward, making them eligible for reservation. While the judiciary has accepted caste as a factor that can be taken into account while identifying socially and educationally backward sections, the relevance of religion in the process is still to be decided finally. The Andhra Pradesh high court recently struck down the state government’s decision to provide four per cent reservation for Muslims within the OBC quota on the ground that the sub-quota was fixed on religious lines and had no other intelligible basis.

There is difference in the approaches of the Executive and the Judiciary to the reservation issue. The former, under elected representatives, takes note of popular sentiments, and is therefore susceptible to charges of appeasing vote banks. The latter, dominated by beneficiaries of the old order, is susceptible to charges of not being sufficiently sensitive to the issue of social iniquity.

The suggestion that there is no evidence of inadequacy of SC and ST representation is ill-founded. Figures given to Parliament recently show that they are grossly under-represented in the higher echelons. What’s more, 25,037 posts meant for SCs and 28,173 meant for STs are lying vacant. These include both direct recruitment and promotion posts.

There is a strong anti-reservation lobby in the country consisting of people who benefited from the old order and want to retain the advantage it confers on them. They have used the merit argument to conceal the inequality of opportunity they are seeking to perpetuate. The Supreme Court has routinely endorsed this argument even though it is not substantiated by any empirical study. -- Gulf Today, September 11, 2012.

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